We usually begin these with some reflections on the year that’s been, but you know how the last year has been and it would feel condescending to repeat. Half the films we anticipated we would be writing about this year at the start of last year didn’t even come out, and almost none of those that did got a theatrical release. We usually define the “film year” through a combination of Oscar eligibility, Irish release dates and our own gut feeling about whether a movie is part of a given cultural “season” or not. This year, it’s all gut feeling, so if you’re wondering why I Care a Lot, released February 2021, was eligible, but not Zack Snyder’s Justice League, released March 2021, it’s because we say so.
Just like every year, we gave one award for each of the eight major Oscars: we care about most of the others (except for the fake awards like Best Original Song) but this post would be absurdly long if we picked those too. We each did out our personal nominees and then selected the winner by consensus, so the winners only come from films that both of us have seen and nominated, but we’ve each picked a personal runner-up regardless of whether the other has seen or nominated it. We also each gave a Special Achievement Award for something that doesn’t quite fit the regular categories. You can see each of our full slates of nominees at the bottom of this post, which we strongly encourage you to check out if you’re looking for recommendations. There was a surprising number of great films this year, and we only got to award a small fraction of them.
BEST PICTURE – The Trial of the Chicago 7
Dean: “I spent the entire middle third of The Trial of the Chicago 7 sobbing into my hands. The horrifying police violence against protesters after their failed attempt to get Tom out of jail, the characters’ heartbreaking reactions to the assassination of Fred Hampton, and the infamous binding and gagging of Bobby Seale in open court. From the first crack of a truncheon to the relief when Judge Hoffman finally gave Bobby his mistrial, I was bawling.
We spend most of the film in the courtroom, and we’ve already seen the constant hostility and blatant conspiracy happening there, especially the Kafkaesque treatment of Bobby, repeatedly denied his request to represent himself in the absence of his lawyer because only his lawyer can address the court. But this sequence drives home that the trial isn’t retaliation for what the Seven ‘did’ in Chicago. It’s just one theatre in a total, relentless and extremely one-sided war by the US state against political dissidents. No matter what the protesters did in Chicago, the police were planning to attack them regardless.
People with a hate-on for writer-director Aaron Sorkin have decided this film is some wishy-washy liberal fantasy where the system works out in the end. But here in reality, it’s a movie about a vast conspiracy to crush the American left and the impossible perseverance of those targeted in the face of overwhelming, unceasing persecution. It’s one of the finest political dramas of the century, with some of the best courtroom cinematography I’ve ever seen and an abundance of marvellous acting, including Eddie Redmayne’s best performance since Jupiter Ascending. I’m already laughing at how dumb people are gonna feel for trashing this film.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: The Kid Detective – “I was instantly hooked on The Kid Detective on premise alone: it’s not a film about a kid detective, it’s a film about a man who used to be a kid detective and is now no longer a kid but is still, pathetically, a ‘detective’, mostly solving missing pet cases. The Kid Detective is both the perfect execution of that premise and all the depression and lost potential that goes with it, but it’s so much more besides, walking a tightrope of different tones and genres with an effortlessness you wouldn’t expect in a directorial debut. Plus it’s hilarious.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: I’m Thinking of Ending Things – “There’s a bit early on in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, as Jake and Lucy are driving away to visit his parents, where Lucy excitedly says ‘this guy!’ upon entering the car, then it immediately cuts to her staring out the window, completely bored, what feels like minutes later. I laughed so hard I had to pause the film. It’s far from the best thing about this film – that would be, as in all things, Jesse Plemons – but it stuck with me as an example of how intensely committed it is to its weird, funny, abrupt tone and how fantastically it succeeds from start to finish. This film!”
BEST DIRECTOR – Charlie Kaufman for I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Ciara: “I’m Thinking of Ending Things is, among other things, a mad collage of stuff, advertisements and Oklahoma! rehearsals and hallucinations. In the beginning it purports to be a film about a woman meeting her boyfriend Jake’s parents even as she considers breaking up with him, but it features a verbatim Pauline Kael review, a ballet, and the Nobel prize speech from A Beautiful Mind. What makes Kaufman’s direction so special is how he melds a dozen disparate styles together in a mad alchemy, yet it doesn’t feel expansive and sprawling. The opposite: it’s claustrophobic.
The film is shot in a narrow aspect ratio, which both evokes classic Hollywood and literally constricts the characters on-screen, trapping them in a box that doesn’t reach the ends of the screen. The effect is doubled by how the low lights mean there’s more darkness in the frame. Jake’s parents’ house is, like the film itself, dense with stuff, in a way that makes it feel like it’s closing in on you. The environment outside is less an open area than a wall of darkness. Their tables are weirdly small, which just makes the stuff around them feel bigger, like space is being warped, collapsing in on itself.
The way the details around the characters are shot gradually reveal more and more about them and what’s going on – books are big hints – but in a way that emerges naturally, never overplaying the mystery. It’s some of the best work Kaufman has ever done, and that’s saying something.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Rose Glass for Saint Maud – “Saint Maud is the kind of great religious horror you don’t see much anymore. Glass’s direction isn’t a self-conscious throwback, but it shares a sensibility with great horror films of the 1970s: with the way she shoots Maud’s religious rituals, especially, she sustains an unsettling atmosphere even when nothing ‘horror’ is on-screen.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Hlynur Pálmason for A White, White Day – “A White, White Day is a slow-burning, noirish drama about a widower and detective who becomes obsessed with a man he suspects of sleeping with his late wife. You can tell pretty early that this is heading nowhere good, which just makes every moment he chooses not to walk away even more excruciating. Pálmason’s direction is as ruthlessly efficient as Miike’s in Audition: ratcheting up the tension until the last possible second, milking as much of its runtime as possible to build anticipation before detonating it all in a shocking, violent finale. It blows my mind he still doesn’t have the profile of a Robert Eggers or Sean Baker.”
BEST ACTOR – Vince Vaughn as Millie Kessler / The Blissfield Butcher in Freaky
Ciara: “A body-swap horror comedy, Freaky is basically Freaky Friday meets Friday the 13th. And so Vince Vaughn plays two roles: a Jason Voorhees-style slasher villain, and for the majority of the movie, a teenage girl. The former is good, but easy: any stuntman in a hockey mask can be Jason. But the latter is extraordinary.
I expected his performance as Millie to be more or less just a gag – that he would overplay it, basically: an effort to further the incongruence between the character and the body she’s in would lapse into a primary-colour stereotype of what teenage girls are like. But Vaughn plays Millie with such nuance and subtlety and attention to detail that I never doubted for a second he was the same girl that Kathryn Newton was playing in the scenes before they swapped bodies. Part of that is mimicking her mannerisms and the cadence of her speech – which he nails – but it goes much further than an impression. For most of the film, Millie is in Vaughn’s hands, and shapes our understanding of her. When Vaughn-as-Millie talks to the boy she likes, it’s a genuinely sweet, romantic moment, because it doesn’t feel like she’s a middle-aged man in that moment. It’s not at all surprising that the boy still wants to kiss her. Even the way Vaughn walks is perfect, and exemplifies what makes it such a great performance: it’s an identifiably girlish walk, but not at all exaggerated or phoney. The contrast exists in his body and how he moves, he doesn’t need to draw any attention to it.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Adam Brody as Abe Applebaum in The Kid Detective – “Adam Brody is so good as Abe, layering his character with so many emotions that he feels like an entirely rounded person. He’s depressed and ashamed but also defiantly proud. He’s a cynical hardboiled detective and yet so terribly naive. He’s both haunted – by the childhood success that he hasn’t lived up to and the case he never solved – and a ghost.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Delroy Lindo as Paul in Da 5 Bloods – “Delroy Lindo’s monologue to camera during the climax of Da 5 Bloods was one of the most talked-about scenes in cinema last year, and rightly so: it may be the most transcendent feat of acting I’ve ever seen. While his friends retreat to a fortified position to make a last stand, Paul heads into the jungle alone, to live or die on his own terms. He rants directly into the camera in one take: about his friends’ lack of ‘intestinal fortitude’, his delusions of their betrayal, and the spiritual and physical scars of his time at war. Lindo acts like it’s his last chance to sear something immortalising into the cultural memory. I hope it’s not, but he succeeded all the same.”
BEST ACTRESS – Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass in The Invisible Man
Dean: “Elisabeth Moss does not waste a single second of screen time in The Invisible Man, which is especially impressive when she’s in pretty much every scene and usually the focus. From the first frame to the last, her performance as Cecilia is nothing but electric.
The opening is a masterpiece of tension-building, as Cecilia sneaks from her abusive boyfriend’s home in the dead of night, racing against the clock of the drugs she slipped him before bed. It’s brilliantly directed, with pitch-perfect sound design, but it would lack all humanity if it weren’t so grounded in Moss’s performance. Adrian is a violent, controlling, narcissistic tech mogul, and we learn how much he terrifies Cecilia immediately from how tightly she grips the thin blue sheets as she pulls them back to reveal his arm around her hip. Moss is an incredibly gifted physical actor, as much in small details like this as in her dramatic and extremely one-sided fight scenes with the titular villain. But if we’re zeroing in on one part of this performance, you’d better believe it’s the restaurant scene.
Cecilia arranges to meet her sister at a restaurant so she can show her proof she has an invisible stalker, hoping the public setting will discourage him from attacking lest he risk exposure. He dashes that hope in the cruellest way imaginable, and the way Moss plays Cecilia’s reaction, as she slowly realises what’s happened, may well be the best work of her already incredible career. The way her hand shakes as the knife slips from her hand, Jesus Christ. How can anyone be this good every time? This wasn’t even Moss’s only knockout performance this year!”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Rosamund Pike as Marla Grayson in I Care a Lot – “Rosamund Pike should play a sociopath in every movie and be given an Oscar every damn time. Her performance as Marla is certainly a cousin to her performance in Gone Girl, which was probably the best screen performance of the decade, but here, she’s in the guise of a ruthless capitalist. She’s hilarious, she’s terrifying, she’s electric.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Cristin Milioti as Sarah Wilder in Palm Springs – “Cristin Milioti has been overdue a breakout moment for far too long, and I’m very pleased she got one with Palm Springs. She manages to strikes the delicate balance between irony and sincerity that makes a self-aware genre riff like Palm Springs really sing, even though the film is about how that balance shifts within Sarah as she grows accustomed to, then exhausted by, the numbing cynicism you need to stay sane in a time loop. It’s fantastic work, and also a great performance if you like people who act with their eyes. Not a lot of actresses in Hollywood today with crazy eyes like Cristin Milioti.”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, Eli Goree as Muhammad Ali, Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown and Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami…
Dean: “Each of the four central performances in One Night in Miami… is as masterful as the next, so once it was clear one of them was winning this award, it became inevitable that all of them would. Not only because they’re all just so unbelievably good as individual performers, but because so much of the magic of this film is how they play off each other.
Kingsley Ben-Adir mischievously channels both Malcolm X and Barack Obama in his performance, as he slips between preacherly pontification and street banter without making either feel dishonest. Eli Goree says he was born to play Muhammad Ali, but that’s dumb: he made himself into the perfect actor to play Ali and his lifetime of preparation is reflected as much in the timbre of his voice as the arrogant way he dances, dips and dodges around the ring in the boxing matches that open the film. Aldis Hodge is the heart of the movie even as Jim keeps his cards close to his chest all film, and he’s so funny that it’s faintly absurd this isn’t his breakout dramatic turn after a storied career in sitcoms. Leslie Odom Jr. plays Sam Cooke with a conviction and passion that never lets him be reduced to a foil for Malcolm. And then there’s the scene where his mic cuts out in front of a hostile crowd and Sam has them eating out of his hand in seconds through the sheer power of his voice. That’s a tall order for any actor to make credible, but Odom does it and makes it look easy.
The characters spend most of the night arguing big ideas like whether it’s possible to find justice while working within an unjust system, and it would be so easy for them to disappear into their point of view, just puppets in a dramatic staging of a debate. But they never do. There’s not a moment in this film they don’t feel so real they could reach through the screen and grab you.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Ewan McGregor as Roman Sionis / The Black Mask in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – “Ewan McGregor is, as far as I can tell, having the absolute time of his life in Birds of Prey, making a hundred insane decisions that add up to something wonderful. He reminds me most of Ben Whishaw’s performance as Richard II: like Whishaw, he decided for some reason to play the character as both hysterical and gay, and like Whishaw, I respect it one thousand percent.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Toby Jones as Chief Factor in First Cow – “Toby Jones delivered one of the most chilling moments in cinema last year with the same tone you might discuss a particularly interesting fact about a whale. Chief Factor is initially introduced as the amiable territorial administrator and owner of the titular cow. But as the protagonists arrive at his house to cater a party, he discusses his views on the positive effect on labour that a seemingly excessive quantity of lashes can have. His genteel air as he goes on to declare that ‘sometimes, a properly rendered death is even useful in the ultimate accounting’ is genuinely one of the most disturbing things I’ve heard in a film. I still shiver thinking about it.”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – Maria Bakalova as Tutar Sagdiyev in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Ciara: “Maria Bakalova in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is, as they say, a revelation. She plays Borat’s daughter who sneaks along on his second trip to America, and it becomes instantly clear that she’s one of the funniest people in the world. She’s an equal, easily keeping pace with Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat, which is impressive enough given how talented he is an improviser. But she’s terrific in ways entirely her own. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is much plottier than the original, so Tutar’s character arc becomes central to this film: from accepting that women should be kept in cages and that touching your own genitals is life-endangering to discovering women can own businesses and drive cars, she plays it all with a conviction that makes it surprisingly touching, giving the film its depth and heart. There’s a real warmth and poignancy to Tutar as Bakalova plays her, which is certainly not something I expected from a belated Borat sequel.
But first and foremost, she’s hilarious. She brings a real madcap energy and a kind of wide-eyed wonder that means she can get a laugh from small expressions like a well-timed grin as easily as from her punchlines. As well as her excellent work as a double act partner for Baron Cohen – the scene at the plastic surgeon alone! – she takes the reigns for some of the funniest scenes in the movie, whether that’s telling a group of conservative women about the joys of masturbation or screaming in terror when her babysitter takes her for a drive (women can’t drive, after all!). She’s the one running the film’s big Rudy Giuliani scene. It would be so easy for ‘Borat’s daughter’ to have an awkward quality, like either a retread or an intrusion: somewhere between Godzilla’s son and Shia LaBeouf in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But Tutar isn’t an off-brand Borat and she’s not a weird addition. She’s utterly fantastic.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Helena Zengel as Johanna Leonberger / Cicada in News of the World – “News of the World got a raw deal this award season, and no-one more than Zengel, about whom I would grandly announce at parties that she couldn’t speak English when they made this if we were allowed have parties and anyone had watched News of the World. A German child raised by Native Americans, her journey from utter contempt towards Tom Hanks’s character – when she eats the stew with her hands! – to total love is carried off beautifully by Zengel’s performance.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Miranda Hart as Miss Bates in Emma. – “I’ve enjoyed Miranda Hart as an actress in Call the Midwife, but I never really rated her as a comic performer until she stole the show in Emma. as the chatty and obnoxiously perky Miss Bates. She’s so funny that before long, I started laughing out loud as soon as I heard her off-screen, the kind of Pavlovian response that usually takes multiple seasons of a sitcom to develop. But she also fucking whips in the picnic scene. Her crushed reaction to Emma’s callous public humiliation is the absolute beating heart of the film, the hinge on which the story turns, and she’s perfect.”
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY – Sofia Coppola for On the Rocks
Ciara: “Even though On The Rocks got pretty good reviews, it was definitely underappreciated: a bunch of absolute dry shites had the cheek to call it ‘slight’, which misses the point entirely. It’s a father-daughter caper. It’s a battle of the sexes comedy. It’s delightful.
Light doesn’t mean slight: On The Rocks isn’t heavy or deep, but it’s absolutely great fun. Laura is worried that her husband Dean is cheating, so she enlists her father Felix to procure evidence either way. What follows is a lot of stake outs, sneaking around and a spy trip to Mexico. Sofia Coppola has always been a great screenwriter, and On The Rocks is her best work as pure comedy. The repartee between Laura and Felix is perfect, and while I could point to any of their great conversations about men and women – Felix seems to think he’s an expert on evolutionary biology – what really sticks with me is when he tells Laura, ‘No kid of mine is going to stop whistling!’ The farcical setpiece hijinks they end up in are clockwork, with diligent but light-touch set-ups and extremely funny escalations.
But it has heart, too. It carefully weaves the history of Laura’s relationship to her dad throughout, culminating in Laura asking if it was worth it to break up his marriage to her mother. Their whole relationship is so well-written it made me want a hundred capers with the pair of them. Best of all is the ending, when Laura says the quiet part out loud: ‘Next time just ask me if you wanna spend some time together.’ Try not smiling at that.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Evan Morgan for The Kid Detective – “It’s crazy to me that Evan Morgan had apparently never made a movie before, because The Kid Detective has such a crackerjack screenplay. From the big structural stuff – there’s a major tone shift partway through that’s executed incredibly smoothly – to tiny details, like Abe saying how many ‘mysteries’ he’s solved, or still cashing in the lifetime supply of ice-cream he was rewarded for solving a case twenty years ago, it’s basically perfect.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Jeff Baena and Alison Brie for Horse Girl – “Horse Girl is a lovely, funny, very sad film about an isolated and socially-awkward woman, played by writer Alison Brie, who keeps visiting the horse she was forced to sell even though it makes its new owners uncomfortable, and also begins to suspect she was kidnapped by aliens. If it all sounds a bit quirk for quirk’s sake, well, that’s what you get for judging a book by its cover. Baena and Brie weave together so many different threads into what’s ultimately such a simple story you’d think some of it would feel like fat or filler, but it never does. It all feeds back into this lone horse girl’s slow descent into madness and/or triumph and the ending ties everything up in, if not a neat bow, then certainly a beautiful one. What a picture.”
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY – Charlie Kaufman for I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Dean: “I think one of the underappreciated keys to telling a good story with dream logic is the dialogue. You have to find a Goldilocks zone between too gibberish to follow and not gibberish enough to unnerve, words both reflecting and constructing not just the characters and their relationships, but the world they live in and the narrative logic of their lives. Tip too far one way and it becomes too inscrutable to engage with on an emotional level. Tip too far the other direction and you lose the anxious air of ambiguity that makes it all so tense and compelling.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things manages to stay in that Goldilocks zone from the top of the show right to the final curtain, never giving enough away to clarify what’s going on, but always enough to keep its hooks in you. The characters constantly talk past each other, but only just, as if each of them is from a slightly different parallel universe and trying to bluff their way through the evening without anyone else catching on. It’s part of why the film feels like an anxiety attack: it’s always doling out information about the characters, but you don’t know who or what you can trust, and you sure as shit can’t do anything with it. You just have to watch the situation, the characters and, in the end, the world fall apart.
That it manages all that while interpolating the script with bits of other texts – Pauline Kael’s review of A Woman Under the Influence, multiple poems, the musical Oklahoma! – is a feat of screenwriting brilliance I will be contemplating for many years as I fail to achieve anything a tenth as good. That Charlie Kaufman sure can spin a good yarn.”
Ciara’s Runner-Up: Kemp Powers for One Night in Miami… – “Sometimes when plays are adapted to screen the journey is pretty bumpy, either making so few changes they hardly feel like films at all (Fences) or making big pointless changes just to be different (the opening scenes of That Championship Season). But One Night in Miami… is emphatically a film, not least because Powers’s screenplay figured out how to translate its extremely stagey premise. It manages to make some of the most famous figures in black history – especially Muhammad Ali – feel both recognisably themselves and well-rounded characters. Plus the bit where Sam Cooke explains the money he’s made from the British Invasion! Amazing.”
Dean’s Runner-Up: Shaun Grant for True History of the Kelly Gang – “True History of the Kelly Gang is not the true history of the Kelly Gang. It’s a gender-bending punk rock fantasia on national themes, filtered through Ned’s self-serving perspective and chocked full of fabrications, like the Kelly Gang fighting their enemies in dresses. It’s set in a place that never existed and a time that never was, and all the overlapping layers of history, unreality and surrealism would blur together into a colourful mess if it didn’t have this script as its foundation.”
SPECIAL ACHIEVEMENT AWARD – Soul
Ciara: “Pixar went through a bit of a slump post-Inside Out: after one of the best films the studio had ever produced – which, incidentally, I cried basically the whole way through – we got a mixture of uninteresting kiddy fare (The Good Dinosaur) and serviceable sequels (Finding Dory, Incredibles 2, Toy Story 4). A lot of people were head over heels for 2017’s Coco, but it just didn’t hit home for me for whatever reason – and certainly didn’t connect with me the way that Wall-E, Up, or Toy Story 3 did a decade earlier. The Pixar films I loved had felt groundbreaking, had felt as much or more for grown-ups as kids, were beautiful and heartbreaking and odd. Wall-E goes longer without dialogue than 2001: A Space Odyssey does! And I felt that maybe that quality that drew me to Pixar had been lost somewhere along the way, the Disneyfication of Pixar finally catching up to them a decade after their acquisition. And then I watched Soul.
Soul has exactly that quality Pixar’s best films have. A middle-school music teacher dies right before he’s about to get his big break as a jazz musician, and he goes on a grand odyssey to escape his journey to The Great Beyond and reunite his soul and body. Along the way, he teams up with a soul called 22, who hasn’t been born yet and doesn’t want to be. It is, just at the level of animation, pretty stunning: the contrast in styles used for the beings that inhabit The Great Beyond works really well. But it’s also a film about whether human life has purpose and how we find fulfilment, about the origin of personalities and the nature of creativity. It’s about jazz. It’s about teaching. It’s about being alive. It’s a Pixar film in the fullest, best sense, and I loved it.”
SPECIAL ACHIEVEMENT AWARD – The Whalebone Box
Dean: “I feel, in retrospect, that I’ve been too frivolous in my use of the phrase ‘hard to describe’, because I have never struggled to describe anything as much as I’m struggling to describe The Whalebone Box. To put it in the simplest terms, it’s a sort of surreal travelogue about director Andrew Kötting and his friend travelling to an island in the Outer Hebrides to bury a whalebone box on the beach where the whale it was made from died. To put it in honest terms, if you watch The Whalebone Box and think that’s even fifty percent of what the film is about, you’ve missed half the picture.
Their journey from London to Harris is intercut with, well, many things, but most importantly, scenes of the director’s daughter and collaborator, Eden Kötting, talking about a dream she had. Her dream begins to sound an awful lot like the movie as it goes on, and I found myself pondering whether she was recalling the journey from her dream or prophesying it into the film, then whether the answer even makes a difference when it so thoroughly collapses the distinctions between fact and fiction. It uses limited, kinda janky visual effects for scenes of horror, their uncanniness enhanced by its lo-fi, vérité, almost home movie style. Excerpts from other works intrude on the narrative as if broadcast from another, ruined world.
It seems like it shouldn’t be possible to be a documentary and an experimental horror film at the same time, but here we are, with one of the most disturbing, heartwarming, impossible films I’ve ever seen. I’ve had literally a year to figure out how to talk about it and I’m not even close to finish processing what it’s done to my brain.”